Like its Los Angeles counterpart, the burgeoning Koreatown in Buena Park can be overwhelming to visitors.
All along Beach Boulevard, down Orangethorpe Avenue and across Commonwealth Avenue, I have long seen strip mall signs alight with Hangul lettering spelling out the names of beauty parlors, markets, doctors and traditional Korean restaurants.
But over the past few years, even more signs have been appearing — many spilling over the 5 Freeway and into several shopping centers northward — marking a new wave of contemporary Korean bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants, sports bars and late-night lounges that make even more visible the large Korean population that's lived in the city for decades.
The majority of these new establishments already have a proven track record. Some are second locations for restaurants that first landed in L.A.'s Koreatown. Others come from Orange County's old-school Little Seoul in Garden Grove.
With better parking and an increasing diversity of options, Buena Park is the new hub for Korean dining in O.C. All you have to do is figure out where to eat. From barbecue to soups and fried chicken to dessert, here are five places (separated by their specialty dish) to get you started.
Where to go for Korean barbecue: Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong
For most non-Koreans, Korean barbecue is their first introduction to the country's cuisine. And while of course Korean food as a whole is much more complex than just good, simple meat on a grill, it's true that having artfully marbled brisket cooking in the center of your table while you nosh on a variety of fermented and pickled vegetables is arguably one of the best food experiences one can have. Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong, a lauded chain owned by South Korean TV host and comedian Kang Ho-dong, offers elevated KBBQ, where the meat (including fine cuts of beef and pork) is no cheap, all-you-can-eat affair and the servers do most of the hard work for you. They set you up with fresh charcoal, a clean grill top and no less than a dozen bowls filled with banchan and fixings before spending the next hour dancing between tables, turning meat, flipping dirty grills and always returning just in time to drop what's ready to eat directly into your bowl. When your meal is over, a trough of grilled vegetables and cheesy corn — which have been slowly simmering the whole time — await.
Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong is at 5171 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. For more information, call (714) 739-9678 or visit 678usa.com.
Where to go for soondubu jigae: Kaju Tofu Restaurant
Like ramen and pizza, soondubu is a staple late-night drunk food — albeit with a Korean twist. The spicy gurgling red soup always starts with either a beef or anchovy broth and soft chunks of uncurdled tofu, then loads a hot earthenware pot full of the stuff to the top with your choice of beef, pork, seafood, mushrooms, kimchi and more. At the 8-month-old Kaju Tofu Restaurant, which has a beloved original location in Garden Grove, the soondubu broth is hearty, the tofu is sponsored by famous tofu-maker House Foods and the nice Korean aunties are more than happy to help you properly prep your meal (don't forget to crack the egg!). Choose from 13 different soondubu varieties, none of which requires a night of drinking to enjoy.
Kaju Tofu Restaurant is at 7232 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park. For more information, call (714) 522-1144 or visit kajusofttofu.net.
Where to go for chimaek: Corner Jip
This isn't the first time we've mentioned Corner Jip in this column and it might not be the last because Korean fried chicken is not your average bucket of Popeyes slop. Corner Jip opened last year away from the epicenter of Buena Park's new-wave KTown, but it's still one of the best places in O.C. to get down on some chimaek, a portmanteau of a Seoul-founded dining trend that combines the Korean words for chicken and beer. At Corner Jip, you order some pitchers of light beer (from a local craft brewery, depending on what's in stock) along with a big plate of fried chicken (or perhaps just the wings) and spend a few hours watching sports on TV, playing pool or just hanging out with your crew. Korean chicken is always fried twice, making the skin thin and crackly while the meat stays juicy inside. Wash it all down with a cold beer for the full chimaek experience.
Corner Jip is at 6552 Auto Center Drive, Buena Park. For more information, call (714) 752-6700.
Where to go for gimbap: Yogi Yogi
When my Korean friends were growing up, gimbap — sushi-like Korean rice rolls — were the ultimate mom-made pack lunch. Assorted meats, pickled vegetables and more are coddled inside sticky rice and a sheet of roasted seaweed, then are sliced into hand-held chunks that you can pop into your mouth. When made outside the home kitchen, some places go for girth, trying to fit as much bulgogi, kimchi, anchovy or fried shrimp into their rolls as possible. But Yogi Yogi — which lives inside a mission-style structure that once housed an old-school Taco Bell — opts for more conservative portions, putting only one or two ingredients at a time into its quarter-sized rolls, so you can explore multiple pure versions of this popular Korean snack before going deeper elsewhere. Order them in threes on a wooden plate (try the ones wrapped in a thin covering made from scrambled egg instead of the traditional seaweed, too) or get a roll combo, which comes with a bowl of ddukboki carbonara, drenched in a creamy sauce that's all but made for gimbap dipping.
Yogi Yogi is at 5941 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. For more information, call (714) 735-9027.
Where to go for bingsoo: Sul & Beans
Koreans are mad dessert geniuses, especially when it comes to the icy parfait known as bingsoo. An elaborate pile of flavored shaved ice, condensed milk and whatever fermented, fruity or crumbly toppings happen to be around (from red beans and rice cakes to Corn Flakes, anything goes), bingsoo is a dish built for sharing that has a close cousin in the Filipino mish-mash dessert that is halo-halo. The trusted L.A. Koreatown sweet shop Sul & Beans opened its second location in Buena Park last summer and serves up a dozen different kinds of big-bowl bingsoo, including black sesame, taro, mango and strawberry.
Sul & Beans is at 5427 Beach Blvd, Buena Park. For more information, call (657) 529-1060 or visit sulandbeans.com.